The sustainability of biofuels : a principled lifecycle assessment of the 2009 European Union Renewable Energy Directive and its framework


University of British Columbia

Date Issued


Document Type



Master of Laws - LLM




Drastic reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are needed in order to mitigate the effects of climate change. The European Union (EU), a leader in climate change mitigation, has adopted an ambitious strategy to achieve its mitigation goal. A piece of this strategy is the Renewable Energy Directive. The Directive establishes mandatory renewable energy targets for member states. Cognizant that in order to achieve the target of 10% of final energy consumption in the transport sector member states would have to rely heavily on biofuels, the EU, in the spirit of sustainable development, included in the Directive sustainability criteria for biofuels. The criteria were needed because, although biofuels can be carbon neutral and an effective replacement for fossil fuels, the production of biofuels can have serious environmental and socio-economic consequences. This thesis concludes that the Directive will not result in the sustainable production of biofuels. This conclusion is based on the principled lifecycle assessment of the Directive and its framework. This approach is a combination of core principles of sustainable development – integration, equity, precaution and polluter pays – and of the basic tenets of lifecycle assessment, a methodology designed to measure the lifecycle impacts of a product. Due to the reliance by member states on first generation biofuels, biofuels produced under the Directive’s regime are not likely to reduce GHG emissions compared to fossil fuels, and are likely to increase water pollution, the loss of biodiversity and food insecurity. The negative impacts of biofuels production are caused mainly by the agricultural production of feedstocks, especially through indirect land-use change. Furthermore, the cost of pollution is not internalized by the regime and biofuels subsidies are not linked to environmental concerns. Therefore, the lifecycle impacts of EU biofuels production do not accord with core principles of sustainable development. Only second and third generation biofuels, which are not yet available on a large-scale, seem to have the potential to be sustainable.

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Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International




Law, Peter A. Allard School of